Napoleon's Russian Campaign of 1812

Build-up to War
Napoleon's Preparations
Napoleon's Plans
Russian Preparations
Russian Plans
The War in Western Russia
To Moscow
In Moscow
The Retreat from Moscow
The Flanks
The Aftermath

Napoleon's Russian Campaign of 1812 was one of the greatest disasters in military history. Napoleon invaded Russia at the head of an army of over 600,000 men but by the start of 1813 only 93,000 of them were still alive and with the army. The Russians had prevented Napoleon from fighting the decisive battle he wanted until he was at the gates of Moscow, and their refusal to negotiate after he captured the city eventually forced the French to carry out a lengthy and very costly retreat, harassed by the cold and by Cossacks. The retreat from Moscow was one of the defining images of the Napoleonic period, and the disaster in Russia helped convince many of Napoleon's former allies to turn against him, especially in Germany. Within two years Napoleon went from the master of most of Europe to abdication and his first exile.


Russia's previous involvement in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had been intermittent, with her policy affected by arbitrary changes of attitude on the part of the Tsar. Catherine the Great had condemned the French Revolution, but at the time she was involved in the partition of Poland and so Russian didn't get involved.

Paul I was neutral until the French seized Malta in June 1798. In the aftermath of this disaster for their order the Knights of St John offered Paul the Grand Mastership of the Order and the cause of the Knights was one of the main reasons why Russia joined the Second Coalition. A Russian army under Suvorov performed well in Switzerland and northern Italy, but the Tsar then became jealous of his general's successes and pulled Russia out of the war in 1800. In December 1800 and January 1801 he even wrote to Napoleon to suggest that they meet and apply joint pressure on Britain to end the conflict. By now Paul's erratic behaviour had alarmed many at his court and on 24 March 1801 he was overthrown and murdered. He was succeeded by his son Alexander I.

At first Alexander hoped to work with Napoleon to establish a general peace, but his efforts in this area failed. In March 1804 Napoleon kidnapped the Duc d'Enghien from Baden and on 21 March the Duke was executed. This angered Alexander on two levels - first because of the blatent injustice of the act and the breach of international rules and second became his wife Elizabeth came from the royal family of Baden. The execution of the Duc d'Enghien was one of Napoleon's biggest mistakes, convincing many across Europe who might have been willing to tolerate his rule that he was entirely untrustworthy.  It helped convince Alexander to sign a defensive treaty with Austria in November 1804 and to create an alliance with Britain in April 1805. The Austrians joined the alliance in August 1805, and it became the Third Coalition.

Russian involvement in the Third Coalition was a disaster. Tsar Alexander was the nominal commander-in-chief of the Russian and Austrian armies during their crushing defeat at Austerlitz (2 December 1805). Austria was knocked out of the war and the Russians forced to retreat out of their territory. Only now did Prussia enter the war, forming the Fourth Coalition. This new alliance went little better. The Prussians were crushed at Jena and Auerstädt (14 October 1806), before the Russians could reach the theatre of war. This time the Russians performed rather better, and Napoleon suffered his first serious setback in the costly and inconclusive battle of Eylau (8 February 1807). When the fighting resumed in the spring and summer of 1807 Napoleon was better prepared, and the Russians suffered a heavy defeat at Friedland (14 June 1807).

After the battle the Russians retreated to Tilset, where they entered into negotiations with the French, On 24 June Tsar Alexander and Napoleon met on a raft in the middle of the Niemen River and over the next few days Napoleon appears to have charmed the Tsar. Tilsit saw Napoleon just about at the peak of his powers, effectively dictating terms to Frederick William III, King of Prussia and the Tsar of Russia. The Russians emerged from the negotiations fairly well. They had to concede ground in Poland, and agreed to the formation of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. This was formed from land taken from Prussia, and ruled by King Frederick Augustus of Saxony. The Russians also agreed to Napoleon's restructuring of much of Germany, with the formation of the Kingdom of Westphalia and expansion of the Duchy of Berg. They also surrendered their Mediterranean possessions - Cattaro in Montenegro and the Ionian Islands. Perhaps most importantly Russia agreed to join the Continental System, Napoleon's trade blockade of Britain and to go to war with Britain if peace wasn't agreed by November 1807. In return Napoleon agreed not to interfere if Russia went to war with Sweden to conquer Finland, and to help bring about peace between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, or if this failed to help the Russians in the war.

Build-up to War

The French alliance was very unpopular in Russia, but at first Alexander stuck by the Tilsit agreement. Russia was soon officially at war with Britain and the Continental System was implemented. Alexander then focuses on internal reforms. On the French side Napoleon withdrew most of his troops behind the Elbe, while many ended up fighting in Spain. He also encouraged Russian efforts in Finland and in Asia.

Despite this apparently cordial relationship there were several areas of tension between the two powers. Alexander wanted to take Moldavia and Wallachia from the Ottomans, and even had aspirations to take Constantinople and give Russia direct access to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea. Napoleon was equally determined to keep the Russians out of the Mediterranean. Further north French influence in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw angered many Russians, who saw the area as part of their sphere of influence (even though the Duchy had been formed out of lands taken from Prussia). Napoleon attempted to satisfy the Russians by refusing the recreate the Kingdom of Poland, but the tension remained. The Continental System also became to cause problems in Russia. Trade with Britain had been vastly more valuable than trade with France, and many Russian nobles and merchants suffered financial hardship as a result.

The tensions began to come into the open in 1808 when war between France and Austria began to look more likely. Napoleon and Alexander met at the Congress of Erfurt in September-October 1808, where Napoleon attempted to gain Russian support against the Austrians. Although only a year had passed since Tilsit Alexender was much more confident and less willing to go along with Napoleon's demands. Napoleon agreed that Russian could occupy Moldavia and Wallachia but in return all he got was a vague promise to help against Austria. Napoleon emerged from Erfurt convinced that Alexander was now his main rival in Europe.

When war broke out in 1809 the Russians only made token moves to aid the French. They took a handful of border provinces, but unofficially made it clear that they weren't going to advance any further. This allowed the Austrians to concentrate against Napoleon, although didn't prevent them from losing the war. Napoleon was angered by the Russian inactivity. He further strained the relationship by giving Austrian Galicia to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. In January 1810 in an attempt to placate the Russians Napoleon drafted a convention in which he promised not to recreate the Polish Kingdom, but the offer didn't convince the Russians and the convention was never ratified.

Late in 1809 Napoleon divorced Josephine and began to hunt for a second wife, hoping to produce a son. He had been looking for a suitable bride for some time, and had approached Alexander about the possibility of marrying a Russian princess. By January 1810 Napoleon had settled on the Grand Duchess Anna, Alexander's sister and the sixth daughter of Paul I. He opened formal negotiations with Alexander, but his mother, the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna was violently opposed to the idea. Alexander attempted to play for time, suggesting that Napoleon should wait for two years. By this point Napoleon was also in negotiations with the Austrians. When his upcoming marriage with the Emperor Francis I's daughter Marie Louise was announced Alexander was privately relieved, but in public he claimed that the marriage was an affront to Russian honour. In return the French claimed that Alexander's earlier indecision was an insult to Napoleon. Napoleon used this as an excuse not to ratify the earlier convention on the future of Poland.

The most serious cause for tension was still the Continental System which was having a major impact on Alexander's tax income. In response an increasing number of neutral ships were allowed into Russian ports (opening a door for trade with Britain), and on 31 December 1810 the Tsar issued a ukase that placed heavy duties on all imported luxury goods, including those from France. This meant that Russia had effectively left the Continental System.

The relationship continued to suffer in 1811. At the start of the year Napoleon decided to annex Holland and the Hanse Towns in an attempt to close holes in the Continental System. This included the lands of the Duke of Oldenburg, the Tsar's brother-in-law, and inevitably increased tension.

In May 1811 the Swedes offered the reversion of their throne to Marshal Bernadotte. The Swedes hoped that this would improve their relationship with the French and protect them from the Russians. In contrast the Russians worried that this was part of a plot to surround Russia with French allies, from Sweden in the north, through the expanded Grand Duchy of Warsaw, to Austria, now tied to Napoleon through marriage and even on to Turkey and Persia. What the Russians didn’t realise was that Napoleon didn't really trust Bernadotte, and was initially reluctant to agree to the move. Once Bernadotte was in Sweden he quickly realised that his new country's interests would be best served by an alliance with Russia and Britain

By this point Napoleon was convinced that Alexander was preparing to make war on France. Alexander consistently denied that he had any such plans, and this was probably the case.

By August 1811 Napoleon was convinced that war was inevitable, and on 15 August he made a bitter verbal assault on the Tsar at a diplomatic reception at the Tuileries. This was a deliberate act of provocation, but Alexander ignored it. This may have delayed the outbreak of war, but from the start of 1812 both sides began to prepare for the increasingly inevitable conflict.

Napoleon made the first move. On 27 January 1812 he issued a list of grievances to his German allies, claiming that the territory of the Confederation of the Rhine was endangered. He also ordered his brother Jerome, king of Westphalia, to mobilise his army by 15 February and asked the Austrians to provide 40,000 men and the Prussians 20,000. On 8 February Napoleon mobilised his own army and began to mass troops in northern Germany. He claimed that this was to block local holes in the Continental System, but nobody was fooled.

In March 1812 Napoleon annexed Swedish Pomerania, a move designed to protect his flanks during the upcoming war. This move finally pushed the Swedes into the Russian camp and in April Bernadotte adopted a position of friendly neutrality with Russia. In return the Tsar promised to support the return of Norway to Swedish control.

In the same month the Russians issued their own demands. Ambassador Kurakin in Paris delivered the ultimatum - Napoleon was to evacuate Prussia, compensate the duke of Oldenburg and create a neutral zone between France and Russia (in effect abandoning the Poles and his allies in Germany). If he did this then Alexander might agree to consider Napoleon's grievance and revive the Continental System. Unsurprisingly the French didn't accept these terms. The Russian position improved in May 1812 when the Peace of Bucharest ended a war between Russia and Turkey. When combined with the agreement with Sweden this meant that Russia no longer had to worry about her northern or southern borders and could concentrate her efforts against the French.

By May Napoleon was ready to join his armies. He left St Cloud on 9 May and one week later was in Dresden. Here he had one of his last meetings on equal terms with the crowned heads of Europe, spending two weeks with the Emperor of Austria, the King of Prussia and the Princes of the Confederation of the Rhine. Part of the time was spent planning the upcoming campaign and part socialising. Napoleon also sent one last envoy to Alexander at Vilna, mainly to convince his more reluctant allies that he wanted peace but was being forced into war.

Portrait of Marshal Jacques Macdonald, Duke of Taranto, 1765-1840
Portrait of
Marshal Jacques Macdonald,
Duke of Taranto, 1765-1840

By mid-May most of Napoleon's troops were massed between Danzig and Warsaw on the Vistula. On 26 May Imperial Headquarters issued orders for a general advance to the Niemen. The army moved with its three main units in echelon - the main army at the front, Prince Eugene in the middle, Jerome at the rear, and with MacDonald guarding the northern flank and Schwarzenberg the south. There was no military opposition to this advance, but the local Prussians were unfriendly, the terrain was difficult and the men were under orders not to use the twenty four days worth of supplies they were carrying. The army thus reached the Niemen tired.

On 29 May Napoleon left Dresden. On the following day the Army reached its concentration areas and was ready to cross the Niemen. Napoleon reached the Grand General Headquarters on 17 June at Insterburg, and then advanced towards Kovno along with Bethier and the staff. The stage was now set for the biggest gamble of Napoleon's career. 

Napoleon's Preparations

Portrait of Napoleon BonaparteNapoleon put a massive amount of effort into his plans for the invasion of Russia. He studied every available book on Russia, in particular those on Charles XII of Sweden's failed invasion of 1709. Napoleon decided that he would need 500,000 men in the front line with more men in the rear and a massive stockpile of supplies. This would be far too many men for him to control in a single army, and so he split his army into three, forming what would later be known as 'army groups'.

Preparations began in 1810 when Napoleon ordered extra supplies to be stored in his German and Polish fortresses, officially to guard against any danger of Russian aggression. In 1811 he cancelled or scaled down any preparations for campaigns in Britain or in the East. One blind spot was Spain, where the Peninsula War dragged on, requiring around 200,000 of his most experienced men. 

Napoleon divided the first line of his massive army into three main 'army groups' and two flanking forces. In addition he had a second and third line of troops, partly to guard his rear and partkly to provide reinforcements for the main army.

Napoleon commanded the main army. This contained the Imperial Guard, three corps and two cavalry corps. The Guard was around 47,000 strong. Marshal Lefebvre commanded the Old Guard, Marshal Mortier the Young Guard and Marshal Bessières the Guard Cavalry.

Portrait of Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, 1770-1823
Portrait of
Marshal Louis-Nicolas
Davout, 1770-1823

Marshal Davout's I Corps was the largest formation, 72,000 strong. Marshal Oudinot led the 37,000 strong II Corps and Marshal Ney the 39,000 strong III Corps.

The cavalry was commanded by Marshal Murat, King of Naples, and was split into two cavalry corps. I Cavalry Corps (12,000) was led by General Nansouty, II Cavalry Corps (10,500) by General Montbrun. This gave Napoleon around 217,500 men under his direct command at the start of the operation, most of whom were French

Next came Prince Eugène de Beauharnais and the Army of Italy. This consisted of the Prince's own IV Corps (46,000 men, mainly French or Italian)), General Gouvion Saint-Cyr's VI Corps (25,000 Bavarians) and General Grouchy's III Cavalry Corps (10,000 men, mainly French). This gave Eugène around 81,000 men.

The final part of the first line was the Second Support (or Auxiliary) Army, commanded by Napoleon's brother Jérôme Bonaparte, king of Westphalia. Jerome had the most international force, with no French troops. He commanded VIII Corps (18,000 Westphalians), General Poniatowski's V Corps (36,000 Poles), General Reynier's VII Corps (17,000 Saxons) and General Latour-Maubourg's IV Cavalry Corps (8,000 Poles, Westphalians and Saxons), for a total of 79,000 men.

The flanks were protected by Marshal Macdonald on the left and the Austrian General Schwarzenberg on the right. Macdonald had X Corps (32,000 men, half of them Prussians, the rest a mix of Poles, Bavarians and Westphalians), while Schwarzenberg had the 34,000 strong Austrian Reserve Corps. Neither of these forces was entirely trustworthy, although they didn’t turn on the French until the very end of the campaign.

Between them the three first line armies and flank guards contained over 400,000 men.

The second line contained around 165,000 men and was commanded by Marshal Victor. This included the 33,000 men of his own IX Corps, part of XI Corps and Polish, Lithuanian and German troops. This force was intended to act as a source of reinforcements for the first line.

The third line was responsible for defending the army's rear areas. It contained around 50,000-60,000 men commanded by Marshal Augereau. This included the rest of his own XI Corps, the garrisons of Danzig and the troops left on the Vistula.

In order to defend France Napoleon mobilised 80,000 men aged between 20 and 26 and formed them into 100 cohortes. There were also two regiments of the Young Guard, 24 line and 8 foreign battalions, eight squadrons of cavalry, 48 artillery batteries, 155 depot battalions and a number of National Guard and coast guard units.

The quality of this massive army was more varied than had been the case in Napoleon's earlier campaigns. Most of the senior commanders were good battlefield generals, but were less capable when given independent commands. Napoleon had tended to keep every formation under close control in earlier campaigns, but the vast expanses of Russia meant that this was no longer possible. He didn't help the situation by giving his inexperienced brother Jerome a key command.

Lower down the increase in size of the army and earlier losses had reduced the quality of the lower ranking commissioned troops while a large proportion of the troops were recent conscripts or inexperienced. However there was still a very experienced, very high quality core to the army and some elements of it would still be able to perform impressive feats towards the end of the disastrous retreat.

The cavalry was impressive on the battlefield, but less so off it, and suffered massive losses of horses from the moment it crossed the border. The same was true in the artillery and the lack of horses would play a major part in the horrors of the retreat from Moscow.

Normally Napoleon expected his army to live off the land, but he realised that this wouldn't be possible in Russia, and so put a great deal of effort into creating a suitable supply system. A series of supply magazines were created and vast amounts of food, weapons, ammunition and other supplies were gathered. This aspect of the campaign did work - Napoleon was never actually short of supplies during the campaign.

The same can't be said of the transport arrangements. Twenty six transport battalions were formed - four received 600 light carts capable of carrying 600kg, four got 600 heavy wagons capable of carrying 1,000kg and the rest got 252 four-animal wagons capable of carrying 1,500kg. The French also gathered vast herds of cattle and oxen with the intention that they would follow the armies. A total of 200,000 animals accompanied the army - 80,000 cavalry horses, 30,000 artillery horses and the rest in transport or supply units. The army began the campaign with around 25,000 wagons. Each solder was to cross the Niemen with 24 days worth of supplies - 4 in the backpack, 20 in wagons, but none of this was to be eaten before crossing into Russia.

The big problem was that the French were dramatically over-optimistic when it came to the speed with which their supply convoys could move. They were already behind schedule at the very start of the campaign and things never really got better. The wagons got bogged down on Russia's mud roads, the animal herds moved much slower than expected and the army moved far further east than anyone had planned. As a result the army itself ran short of supplies almost before they reached the Niemen. As the army retreated from Moscow it came across a series of fully stocked supply depots, but those supplies never got far enough east.

Napoleon's Plans

Napoleon's aim at the start of the Russian campaign was to win an overwhelming victory somewhere in western Russia as quickly as possible, ideally within the first twenty days of the campaign (although his supply preparations show that he was aware that this might not be possible). He hoped that Alexander would see reason once his armies had been destroyed and agree to fully implement the Continental System.

Russia's western borderlands were split by the Pripet Marshes. Napoleon had to decide which side of the marshes to operate - the northern side offered a quicker route to Moscow and would also allow him to threaten St Petersburg, while the southern route (via Kiev) offered better weather and more fertile country, but would take longer and eliminate any threat to St Petersburg. When Napoleon first formed his plans Barclay de Tolly's army was spread out between the marshes and the Courland Coast, while Bagration was south of the marshes.

Napoleon decided to attack in the north. His armies would form up on the Vistula in Poland, quietly advance to the Niemen and then advance towards Vilna. He hoped to split Barclay de Tolly's army in half, and prevent the two main Russian armies from uniting.

Napoleon's plan involved most of his armies. While he advanced on Vilna Schwarzenberg and Reynier would mount a feint in the south in the hope that it would distract Bagration. King Jerome had an important role in the plan - he was to advance east from Warsaw and prevent Bagration from moving north. Napoleon hoped that this would pin Bagration on the River Bug. After about twelve days Jerome was to retreat back towards Prince Eugene and Davout's I Corps on the right of the main army. By this point Napoleon would have 400,000 men behind Bagration's right wing, and would be able to turn south to trap the Russians around Grodno.

Napoleon considered three possible Russian reactions. They could retreat east to try and cover St Petersburg and Moscow. In that case Napoleon would be able advance east into the gap between the two Russian armies and defeat them one at a time. The second possibility was that Barclay de Tolly would abandon Vilna and move south to join Bagration, In this case Napoleon would struggle to prevent the two Russian armies from uniting but he would be able to trap them against the Pripet Marshes, and the Rivers Bug and Narew and force the major battle he required. Finally Barclay de Tolly might retreat east in front of Napoleon while Bagration attacked Warsaw. In this case Napoleon would lead his main army against Barclay de Tolly while the French flanking armies dealt with Bagration.

There were two big problems with this plan. The first was that Napoleon couldn't be everywhere at once. His subordinates lacked experience of independent command, and the distant parts of the operation rarely went as well as Napoleon had hoped. Jerome was especially poor and soon left the army. This problem was made worse by Napoleon's own performance with was sometimes rather lacklustre and lacking in energy - on more than one occasion he missed a fleeting chance to force a battle by pausing for a day.

The second problem was the plan assumed that the Russians would either attack west or at least stand and fight to protect the key cities of western Russia. When the Russians refused to fight Napoleon struggled to come up with an alternative, and his repeated attempts to trap them and force a battle only ended up dragging him ever-further east. Napoleon had hoped to win his major victory within twenty days, but the first significant fighting on the main front didn't come until 25 July, over a month into the campaign (and only involved a small Russian force).

Russian Preparations

In 1810 Barclay de Tolly was appointed as Minister of War and he began a process of much-needed reforms in the Russian army.

One of Barclay de Tolly's key reforms was to create army corps on the French model, at least in the First and Second Western Armies. Each corps contained two infantry divisions, a force of cavalry, two brigades of artillery and one battery of horse artillery. Each infantry division contained three brigades - two of line infantry and one of light infantry. Each brigade had two regiments, each of which had two battalions with the main army and one with the separate Supply Army. Each division thus had twelve battalions of infantry, each around 800 men strong. Most of the corps commanders and above were of good quality, as were most of the Guard and cavalry officers. Lower ranked infantry officers were regarded as fairly useless, while the soldiers themselves were well disciplined, well motivated and famously determined in the defence.

By 1812 the Russian infantry contained six regiments of guards, fourteen grenadier regiments, fifty light infantry and ninety six. The Guard regiments had three front battalions, the others had two front line battalions and a weaker depot battalion.

The cavalry consisted of 6 regiments of guards, 8 of cuirassiers and 36 of dragons in the line cavalry, 11 hussar and 5 uhlan regiments in the light cavalry and 15,000 Cossacks, soon doubled to 30,000. The estimated size of the Russian army in June 1812 was 409,000 regulars, 211,000 of them in the front line armies, 45,000 in the second line and 153,000 in garrisons and reserves.

At the start of the war Barclay de Tolly was the most important Russian commander. He was still Minister of War and also commander of the First Western Army. At the start of the war Alexander was present in person, but after he left Barclay became commander-in-chief because of his role as Minister of War. Barclay de Tolly's biggest problem was his family background - one of his ancestors was a Scot who had settled in Livonia in the Seventeenth Century and married into the local German aristocracy. Although the family had been in Russia for well over a century by 1812 Barclay de Tolly was still seen as a foreigner by many within the army and his policy of avoiding battle made him very unpopular.

The second most important officer at the start of the war was Prince Peter Bagration, a fiery Georgian prince who was command of the Second Western Army. He was brave but reckless and impatient and was far more popular than Barclay de Tolly. The two men frequently argued, but Bagration appears to have behaved loyally when Barclay de Tolly's position came under threat.

The Third Army was commanded by General Count Alexander Petrovich Tormazov, a very experienced but only moderately capable general.

During the retreat Barclay de Tolly was replaced as commander-in-chief by Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, a very experienced commander whose performance during the 1812 campaign has always been rather controversial, with some crediting him for most of the Russian successes and others suggesting that he was almost entirely passive for most of the time.

The Cossacks were commandeered by Generam Matvei Ivanovich Platov, the Atman of the Don Cossacks. He was a brilliant and very popular light cavalry commander.

A less well regarded figure was General Karl Ludwig August von Pfuel, a member of the Prussian General Staff who had entered Russian service in 1807. He won Alexander's trust and was responsible for the initial plan for the defence of Russia - the retreat to the fortified camp at Drissa. Alexander realised the folly of his plan just in time and Pfuel's influence then faded away.

At the start of the campaign the Russians had three armies available and two more that had just been freed up by diplomatic triumphs.

In the north was Barclay de Tolly's 1st Western Army. This consisted of I Infantry Corps (Wittgenstein), II Infantry Corps (Baggovut), III Infantry Corps (Tuchkov I), IV Infantry Corps (Shuvalov), V Reserve (Guard) Corps (Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich), IV Infantry Corps (Dokhturov), I Cavalry Corps (Uvarov), II Cavalry Corps (Korf), II Cavalry Corps (Pahlen) and the Cossack Corps (Platov). Barclay de Tolly started with 120,000 men.

Further south was General Bagration's 2nd Western Army, consisting of VII Infantry Corps (Rayevsky), VIII Infantry Corps (Borozdin) and IV Cavalry Corps (Sievers), a total of 49,000 men.

To Bagration's south was the 3rd Reserve Army of General Tormasov, consisting of Kamenski I's Infantry Corps, Markov's Infantry Corps, Oster-Sacken's Infantry Corps and Lambert's Cavalry Corps, around 44,000 men. This army wasn't fully ready at the start of the war but soon came into action.

On the flanks there were two further armies. Admiral Chichagov's Army of the Danube was freed up by the peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire and played a part in the retreat from Moscow. In the north General Steingell's army in Finland was freed up by the alliance with Sweden.

Russian Plans

In the spring of 1812 the Russian armies were dangerously widely separated. Barclay de Tolly was based around Vilna, while Bagration was posted to the south of the Pripet Marshes, to guard the southern route towards Kiev and Moscow. This was part of a plan suggested by Pfuel, and based on the assumption that Napoleon would focus all of his efforts on one side of the marshes or the other. Whichever army was attacked was to retreat - Bagration to Kiev, Barclay de Tolly to the fortified camp at Drissa on the Dvina River, while the other army was to attack Napoleon's lines of communication. Work began in improving fortifications on the Dvina-Berezina-Dnieper line, with work at Riga on the Baltic, Dünaburg and Drissa on the Dvina, Borisov and Bobruisk on the Berezina and Kiev on the Dnieper. The was began before work on the Dünaburg or Borisov fortifications had really begun. The camp at Drissa was further advanced, but it was poorly designed and sited and was abandoned without a fight.

By June this plan appears to have been abandoned, or at least modified. Bagration had moved north, and his army was now spread out between Bialystok in the north and Volkovysk in the south, placing it to the west of the Pripet Marshes. His place to the south had been taken by General Tormasov's Third Army.

The Russians examined a wide range of options before the war began, including an offensive move into the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, defensive campaigns on the borders, or the retreat to the Dvina, Berezina and Dnieper. When the fighting finally began their main focus was on avoiding battle while their armies were divided, and this evolved into the strategy of training space for time, dragging Napoleon deep into Russia and only risking battle once his army had already been weakened. Even then the decision to stand and fight was only made after Barclay de Tolly had been replaced by Kutusov.


On 22 June 1812 Napoleon issued an Imperial Proclamation that officially marked the start of the war with Russia. Perhaps the most revealing element of this proclamation was that Napoleon called the upcoming conflict the 'Second Polish War', indicating that he expected to fight in western Russia and in particular in the areas only recently taken during the partitions of Poland. Napoleon also tried to blame the war on Russia's conduct, and made it clear that his aim was to eliminate Russian influence in Europe.

On the same day the first Polish cavalry patrols carefully approached the western bank of the Niemen, looking for Russians. Napoleon joined the Poles and then later in the day returned to the river dressed in a Polish hussars clock and forage cap and accompanied by General Haxo of the Engineers and made a more detailed examination of both banks of the river.

On 23 June the Reserve Cavalry, the Guard, Davout's corps and Oudinot's corps moved carefully up to the river, hiding in the forests of Vilkovischi. The only signs of the Russians were some Cossack patrols on the far bank of the river.

At 10pm on the evening of 23 June General Morand had three companies of light infantry cross the river in light boats to establish a bridgehead. General Eblé's bridging crews then began work and by dawn on 24 June three pontoon bridges had been completed. Morand's division and most of the reserve cavalry were the first to cross and most of the rest of the army crossed on 24-25 June. The only Russian resistance came from a Cossack patrol that fired three shots then withdrew.

Napoleon's biggest concern now was that his advance parties weren’t running into Russian outposts. When contact was made it became clear that Barclay de Tolly was retreating east towards Vilna and Sventsiani, reach to move north-east towards the fortified camp at Drissa on the Dvina. Soon afterwards news arrived from the right flank - Napoleon had hoped that Bagration would advance west into the Grand Duchy of Warsaw but instead he was moving north towards Barclay de Tolly and the main army. It was clear that all of Napoleon's deception plans had failed, and the Russians were aware that the attack around Kovno was the main French effort.

Campaign in Western Russia

Attempt to Trap Bagration

The Russian movements still gave Napoleon a chance for a quick victory. Both of the Russian armies were moving north-east - Barclay de Tolly towards Drissa and Bagration towards Vilna. If Napoleon could move fast enough then he could get his main army between the two Russian forces and defeat them individually.

Russia 1812 - The Road to Moscow
Russia 1812
The Road to Moscow

Napoleon's plan involved all three of his first line armies. The main army was to capture Vilna and form the barrier between the two Russian armies. Prince Eugune was to move to Kovno to guard the flanks and rear of the main army. Jerome was to advance east from his starting point near Warsaw and attack Bagration, pinning him in place and making it difficult for the Russians to slip away to the east.

Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

Even though the campaign had only just begun, Eugune was already two days behind schedule, slowed down by his massive supply convoys. As a result Napoleon had to slow down Murat's cavalry, which was approaching Vilna, and keep Davout on the Niemen until Eugene arrived. Just as serious was Jerome's slow progress on the right.

Elsewhere Oudinot captured Kovno and headed north-east towards Keidany, where he hoped to catch Wittgenstein's two divisions. He was supported by Macdonald's flanking force, which was moving north-east from Tilsit, and by Ney's III Corps on his right.

On 27 June the French captured a Russian dispatch that stated that the Tsar and the First Army were at Vilna, and identified Vilna as the planned meeting place with Bagration. Eugune had finally crossed the Niemen, and so Napoleon decided to concentrate his main army and attempt to force a battle at Vilna. On 28 June the French advanced on Vilna with Murat in the lead, confidently expecting a battle. Instead the Russians fired off some artillery, burnt their stores, destroyed the bridge over the River Vilia and retreated. Vilna fell without a battle.

Although the main Russian army had eluded him Napoleon still had a chance to catch Bagration while he was isolated. Barclay de Tolly was still retreating north-east towards Drissa, while Bagration was somewhere to the south of Vilna. Napoleon was still between the two Russian armies, but the opportunity would be fleeting - the lead elements of Bagration's army had been reported at Ochmiana, south-east of Vilna.

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney

Napoleon's new plan very nearly succeeded. Count Lobau was given command of a temporary corps that consisted of Friant's and Gudin's divisions. Lobau and Murat would follow Barclay de Tolley north-east from Vilna towards Sventsiani, supported by Oudinot on the left and Ney in the rear. Davout's corps, with Morand's 1st Infantry Division, was to advance up the Vilia and capture the bridge at Mikhalichki, blocking Bagration's best route across the river. Napoleon remained at Vilna with Dessaix's and Claparede's divisions. Eugene was to advance to Vilna. Finally Jerome was to advance rapidly east from Grodna towards Ochmiana. His task was to press Bagration hard and prevent him from escaping to the east. At this stage Napoleon wasn't entire sure where Bagration actually was, so he had to spread his net fairly wide.

On 1 July the French finally got firm news of Bagration, placing him somewhere on the road from Grodna to Vilna. Napoleon produced a new plan. The expectation was that the Russians would be found heading east, somewhere to the south of the French position. Davout was given an enlarged force, which was split into three columns. The left hand column, under General Nansouty, with Morand's infantry and four brigades of cavalry, would cut off the Russian advance guard. The right hand column, under General Grouchy with Dessaix's infantry, would attack the Russian rear. Davout would command in the centre with Compans' and Pajol's infantry, a division of cuirassiers and the lancers of the guard. Jerome was to press east towards Ochmiana to prevent Bagration from escaping. The attack would begin once Eugene had reached Vilna.

This plan quickly fell apart. On 2 July General Rouguet, part of Eugene's army, reported the presence of a large Russian army was about to attack the left flank of the Army of Italy. Eugene spent the entire day at Piloni on the Niemen before it became clear that this was a false report. The lead elements of VI Corps from Eugene's army finally reached Vilna on 3 July and Napoleon ordered Davout to begin his attack. On the same day Jerome's main force was still at Grodno on the Niemen, although his cavalry had reached Ochmiana, where it found a small Russian detachment but no sign of Bagration. The Russians had moved south-east and were heading for Minsk. Jerome sent this news to Napoleon, but it didn’t arrive until 5 July.

On 4 July Napoleon must have believed that he was about to get his battle. Eugene finally reached Vilna, and so Claparede was sent to join Davout. Bagration's 45,000 men were now facing 110,000 French and allied troops, threatening him from the west, north and north-east.  On 5 July Jerome's dispatch finally reached Napoleon, who was understandably furious with his brother. Napoleon sent a stinging rebuke to Jerome, who resigned in command and left the army on 14 July. Bagration was already aware of the danger, and was now moving south, towards Nesvizh (south-east of Grodno). The Russians rested for 72 hours at Nesvizh and then moved east towards Bobruisk.

Napoleon responded to the news from Jerome by sending Davout to Minsk in the belief that the Russians were still heading that way. Davout reached Minsk on 8 July, and only now did it become clear that Bagration was much further south. The chance to trap Bagration between several French armies and the Pripit Marshes was now gone. Bagration was already south-east of Davout, on the left of the French trap, and as long as he didn't make any mistakes could safely retreat east.

Manoeuvre on Vitebsk

Napoleon now turned his attention to Barclay de Tolly's First Western Army, last seen retreated towards Drissa. Napoleon didn't want to attack the Russians in their fortified camps and so decided to outflank them and either trap them in the camps or force them to abandon them and fight in the open. Murat's cavalry, with Oudinot's and Ney's forces in support, was nearest to Drissa, having followed Barclay de Tolly's retreat. Eugune and the Guard were sent east from Vilna towards Gloubokoie. The main army would cross the Dvina somewhere to the east of Drissa, and get behind the Russian positions, forcing them to either stand and fight or retreat north towards St. Petersburg. This would expand the gap between the two Russian armies and once against allow the French to deal with them one by one.

This plan was disrupted on 16 July when Murat reported some signs of a possible Russian advance. Napoleon recalled the Guard and VI Corps and headed north-east from Vilna to Sventsiani, but by 17 July it was clear that this had been a false alarm. Napoleon moved east and was at Gloubokoie on 18 July. On the following day Murat reported that the Russians had abandoned the camp at Drissa. When the Russian armies finally reached the much-vaunted camp it became clear very quickly that it was indefensible. The Tsar decided to abandon the position and retreat further east. The target was Vitebsk, about 100 miles to the east of Drissa. Barclay de Tolly hoped that Bagration would be able to join him and at one point seriously considered fighting a major battle at Vitebsk.

Napoleon realised that the Russians were heading east, but his initial instinct was that they were heading for Polotsk, about half way between Dissa and Vitebsk. He ordered his army to concentrate at Kamen, south of Polotsk, ready for a battle. On 21 July Napoleon realised that he had misjudged the Russian move, and ordered his troops to move east from Kamen to Biechenkowski, on the south bank of the Dvina.

The first significant battle of the invasion finally came on 23 July 1812 at Mohilev (or Mogilev) on the Dnieper. Davout had captured the town a few days earlier and on 23 July Bagration's men attacked the French in an attempt to recapture the town and open the road north towards Vitebsk. Davout's men had the best of the fighting and forced Bagration to cross the Berezina further south and continue with his journey east. Ironically this French victory played a part in denying Napoleon his battle.

During the night of 24-25 July the French began to move along the left bank of the Dvina, heading for Barclay de Tolly at Vitebsk. The main army finally fought its first significant battle on 25-26 July at Ostronovo, and by the end of 26 July the French were in position to attack. At this stage Napoleon made one of his most serious mistakes of the entire campaign and decided to wait for a day to allow reinforcements to arrive. He was assuming that Barclay de Tolly had decided to stand and fight, but by now the news of Mogilev had reached Vitebsk. Barclay de Tolly realised that this meant that Bagration could not longer join him at Vitebsk and he decided to retreat to Smolensk. When the French finally advanced on the morning of 28 July they discovered that the Russians had gone.

This ended the first stage of the campaign. Napoleon had been unable to force the Russians to stand and fight and his armies hadn’t been able to move quick enough to keep the Russians divided. Although there had been relatively little combat the French were already missing around 100,000 men (mainly stragglers or sick), and the supplies were falling further behind. Napoleon decide to pause at Vitebsk to give his infantry time to rest and allow his supplies to catch up.

Napoleon entered Vitebsk on 28 November, and it would be his base for the next two weeks. Davout was ordered to move closer to the main army, and he advanced north up the Dnieper to Orsha.

There was still some activity on the flanks. On 27 July part of Reynier's corps was defeated by Tormasov's 3rd Army at Kobryn. Schwarzenberg's Austrians had to be moved up to help Reynier, and the combined force won a victory at Gorodechnya on 12 August, but this created gaps on Napoleon's right.

In the north Oudinot's efforts against General Wittgenstein had ended in failure. Instead of pushing the Russians back towards St Petersburg Oudinot was himself forced back to Polotsk. On 15 August he was joined by St. Cyr's corps of Bavarians, and the combined force fought a two day battle at Polotsk (17-18 August 1812). The Russians had the best of the first day and Oudinot was wounded. St. Cyr took over and late on 18 August launched a successful counterattack that forced Wittgenstein to retreat. St. Cyr was promoted to Marshal as a reward for his efforts. August also saw the start of the long (and eventually unsuccessful) siege of Riga, which dragged on into December. Elsewhere Marshal Victor was given command of Jerome's VIII Corps.

By early August the French were already very stretched. Their main front line had doubled in length and was now around 500 miles long. There had been no major battle, and the Russians had been able to unite their two main armies at Smolensk on 4 August.

Manoeuvre of Smolensk

At first Napoleon decided to end the campaign of 1812 at Vitebsk and take up a defensive position along the Dnieper and Dvina. He would spend the time organising Poland and gathering reinforcements, and would renew the war in the spring of 1813. Most of his generals supported this idea, although Murat argued strongly in favour of continuing the campaign until a victory had been won. Over the next couple of weeks Napoleon's resolve wavered. According to Ségur this was the point at which Napoleon began to consider advancing to Moscow, initially as the plan for 1813 but soon as the immediate objective for the rest of 1812. He was clearly aware that his generals wouldn't support such a dramatic move, and even his plans for an advance on Smolensk were opposed, but eventually he had his way. The scene was now set for the Manoeuvre of Smolensk, often considered to be one of Napoleon's most impressive plans.

Napoleon planned to form his men into a bataillon carré of nearly 200,000 men. The Dnieper flows west from Smolensk to Orsha, where it turns south and flows towards Mogilev (and eventually Kiev). Napoleon decided to form his army into two columns. The right-hand column, under Marshal Davout (I, V and VIII Corps) would cross the Dnieper at Orsha. The left-hand column, led by Napoleon in person (the Guard, III Corps, the Army of Italy and Murat's cavalry) would cross the river a little further east at Rosasna. Latour-Maubourg's Corps of Reserve Cavalry would make a diversionary attack further south along the Dnieper. The two main columns would turn left and advance east along the south bank of the Dnieper. They would cut the roads between Smolensk and Moscow and force Barclay de Tolly to fight on Napoleon's terms.

The Russians were also trying to decide what to do next. Barclay de Tolly and Bagration had finally united their armies at Smolensk on 4 August, but although their initial meeting went well the relationship between the two men was poor. Most Russian officers opposed Barclay de Tolly's policy of avoiding battle and used his Livonian-Scottish ancestry against him. At the start of August the Russians were still outnumbered, with around 125,000 to face Napoleon's 185,000, but the French were more stretched out, with V and VIII Corps to the south near Orsha, VI Corps, IV Corps and the Guard near Biechenkowski in the north and I, III Corps and the cavalry between them. The Russians held a council of war on 6 August, and after coming under pressure from the Tsar Barclay de Tolly decided to launch an offensive. A Russian force of 100,000 infantry, 18,000 cavalry and 650 guns was sent west from Smolensk.

On 7 August the Russian advance began. They moved west in three columns in the gap between the Dnieper and the Dvina, heading towards the new left flank of the French army as it prepared to head south towards the Dnieper. The offensive quickly broke down. On 8 August Barclay de Tolly received a false report of a French advance towards Porechye, north of Smolensk. He decided to abandon the move west and instead turned to the north-west and advanced slowly in that direction. The new orders didn't reach General Platov, and on the same day his Cossacks defeated Sebastiani's cavalry at Inkovo, west/ north-west of Smolensk.

The news of this battle triggered very different responses in the two commanders. Barclay de Tolly feared that it would trigger a major French attack that would overwhelm his army, and in response the Russian advance stopped. Napoleon hoped that the Russian advance would lead to the long-desired battle. He ordered his men to concentrate at Lyosno (north-west of Inkovo). By 10 August it was clear that the Russian advance had stalled and the French turned back south and resumed the manoeuvre on Smolensk.

On 13 August Barclay de Tolly resumed his advance, but the new offensive lasted less than a day and stopped east of Rudnia, west of Inkovo, but still some way to the east of the French. Napoleon's move south was successfully shielded by Murat's cavalry, and although Bagration correctly guessed that the main French attack would come on the Russian left he had no evidence to support that.

As Barclay de Tolly cautiously advanced towards Rudnia the French reached the Dnieper. Napoleon left Vitebsk to jouin the army, and on the night of 13-14 August Eblé's engineers built four pontoon bridges across the Dnieper. By dawn on 14 August 175,000 men had crossed the river and the advance east began.

By 2pm the leading French troops had run into the outposts of General Neverovsky's division, which had been posted south-west of Smolensk at Krasnyi to guard against a possible French attack. Neverovsky's men were soon outnumbered, but the French attack was badly coordinated by Murat and the Russians were able to retreat safely east, holding up the French advance (first battle of Krasnyi). Without Neverovsky's determined defence the French cavalry might have reached Smolensk late on 14 August while the city was only weakly defended.

Although the original plan for the manoeuvre is reasoned to be one of Napoleon's masterpieces, from now on his implementation of the plan was very poor. The younger Napoleon would have taken command at Krasnyi, and would almost certainly have performed better than Murat. Not only did the older Napoleon remain away from the front, he now decided to pause for a day to allow his troops to regroup. The French were thus largely inactive on 15 August, although they did celebrate Napoleon's 43rd birthday with a review of the army.

The Russians were more active. Both Barclay de Tolly and Bagration were informed of the French move early on 15 August and began to move back towards the city. Barclay de Tolly ordered General Rayevsky to move his division into the city, and the first Russian reinforcements arrived early on 15 August.

Napoleon now made his third mistake of the operation. Most of the Russian army was still north-west of Smolensk, and the French could have bypassed the city, advanced further east and cut the roads to Moscow. Instead Napoleon decided to launch a series of frontal assaults on Smolensk (16-17 August 1812). This was a costly failure, but the Russians were still worried about the road to Moscow, and so on the night of 17-18 August they evacuated Smolensk. Napoleon was given one more chance when the two Russian armies became separated. Junot nearly got between the two Russian forces, but moved too slowly, while a French attack on the Russian rearguard at Valutino (19 August) failed.

To Moscow

The fall of Smolensk without a major battle caused problems for both sides. Ever since the start of the campaign Barclay de Tolly's authority had been under attack by 'Old Russians' in the army. They saw his as a foreigner and thus not fully committed to the defence of Russia, and objected to his policy of avoiding battle. On 20 August the Tsar finally decided to place Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov in overall command of the armies, with clear instructions to stand and fight somewhere between Smolensk and Moscow. It took a few days for Kutuzov to reach the army, and Barclay de Tolly actually picked out a battlefield for a stand himself. When Kutuzov arrived he dismissed this choice and the retreat continued for a few more days before the Borodino position was chosen.

On the French side Napoleon had failed to bring the Russians to battle. He had captured one of Russia's Holy Cities, but that hadn't convinced the Tsar to enter negotiations. Napoleon now had to decide what to do next. He had two main options. The first was to overwinter at Smolensk. The Grande Armée would be closer to friendly territory in Poland and its supply lines and lines of communication would be more secure. Napoleon could have used the time at Smolensk to undo the damage suffered in the first part of the campaign, raise fresh troops in Poland and perhaps even restore the Kingdom of Poland, before resuming the campaign in the spring of 1813 with an advance on Moscow or St. Petersburg. On the downside the six month delay would leave Napoleon isolated from his government in Paris. It would give the Tsar time to raise fresh troops of his own and bring the experienced troops from the Finnish and Moldavian armies into the field. The Russians could also attack the extended French lines of communication. The pause would also have been portrayed as a French defeat that might have encouraged Austria and Prussia to change sides, leaving Napoleon dangerously isolated in Russia.

The second option was to advance towards Moscow, another 280 miles to the east, in the hope that the Tsar would be forced to make a stand to defend the city. If Napoleon could win a major victory this might convince the Russians to begin negotiations, and it offered the best chance of a quick victory. Napoleon had partly judged the Russian mode correctly - they did indeed make a stand - but by then he was so far into Russia that he didn't dare commit his full forces in the battle and the chance for a major victory slipped away. The biggest problem with an advance on Moscow was that there was no plan 'B' for if the Tsar didn't enter into negotiations.

Borodino - The Start of the Battle
The Start of the Battle

On 24 August Napoleon decided to advance on Moscow. The army began to move on 25 August, in three columns so that it could deploy and fight quickly if the Russians did make a stand. Prince Eugene led on the left, Prince Poniatowski on the right and Marshal Murat in the centre, with the Guard, I Corps and III Corps in the second line.

Borodino - The End of the Battle
The End of the Battle

30 August was so wet that Napoleon announced he would return to Smolensk if the rain continued, but 31 August was dry and so the fateful march continued. By 4 September the French were at Gridnevo, and on 5 September they finally found the Russians drawn up ready to offer battle at Borodino. The fighting began that day when the French attacked a Russian outpost somewhat to the west of their main line (battle of Shevardino). The Russians were forced to abandon this position and withdrew to the lines they would hold at the start of the battle.

Napoleon finally got his battle on 7 September. The battle of Borodino was not one of Napoleon's best. Contemporary reports show that he was listless and inactive during the day. The Russian position had a weak left flank, but Napoleon refused to consider a major outflanking movement and insisted instead on a series of frontal assaults on the strongest part of the Russian lines. By the end of the battle the Russians had been forced out of all of their original positions in the centre and left of the line and the French had captured the fortifications of the Grand Redoubt and the Bagration fleches. The Russian army had lost around 45,000-50,000 men, probably more than a third of the original army, but the survivors had retreated in good order. French losses were probably around 35,000 men on 5-7 September, more than a quarter of the troops involved.

In Moscow

After Borodino the road to Moscow was effectively clear. Kutuzov fought a number of rearguard actions, but at a council of war on 13 September the Russians decided to abandon the city. For most of 14 September the Russian army passed through the city, and later in the day the first French troops arrived. Inevitably Murat was one of the first French officers to enter the city, late on 14 September. Napoleon followed on 15 September and took up quarters in the Kremlin. The French army had shrunk dramatically in the last month. At Smolensk Napoleon had around 156,000 with him, by the time he reached Moscow the number was down to around 95,000. This was partly due to Borodino, but also down to the need to leave garrisons along the road west.

The occupation of Moscow began with a disaster. On the evening of 15 September the first fires broke out. The Russians had removed all fire fighting equipment from the city, and although the French managed to control some of the fires they were unable to put them all out. The fires linked up and large parts of the city caught fire. Napoleon had to flee from the Kremlin and watched the fire from a hill outside the city. At the time Napoleon refused to believe that the Russians had burnt down their own city, but there is plenty of evidence connecting the fires to the actions of the civil governor of the city, Count Rostopchin. There were far too many fires and too many fire starters for it to have been a random act.

About a quarter of the city survived the flames, as did most of the food remaining in Moscow, much of which was stored in cellars that weren't touched by the flames. If more of the city had been destroyed then Napoleon might not have been tempted to stay for quite so long, but as it was the French troops within the city managed to live in relative comfort.

Once he was settled in Moscow Napoleon attempted to enter negotiations with the Tsar. Alexander remained at St. Petersburg, so any messenger took two weeks to make the round trip. Napoleon wrote a first letter to the Tsar on 20 November to tell him of the fires and inform him that the French had not been responsible. The Tasr didn't reply. At first Kutuzov did enter into communications with the French, and he made sure that his men outside Moscow were friendly, fraternizing with their French opponents and lulling them into a false sense of security.

The French were already beginning to feel rather exposed at Moscow. On 24 September a force of Russian cavalry and Cossacks cut the road west near Mokaisk. Napoleon sent a force of chasseurs and Dragoons of the Guard to open the road, but they were captured in an ambush. General St. Sulpice was sent out to clear the blockage, but despite his success the earlier Russians victories helped reduce the general morale of the French troops in Moscow.

On 5 October an official Imperial Delegation was sent to negotiate an armistice with Kutuzov and a permanent peace with the Tsar. Kutuzov received them with all civility, and encouraged the impressive that the Russian soldiers wanted peace. At the same time he refused to allow the French envoys to move on to St. Petersburg and instead had his own couriers take their letter to the Tsar, along with one of his own advising the Tsar not to enter negotiations. The delegates returned to Moscow empty handed.

On 14 October Napoleon sent a second mission. This also failed, and soon afterwards the Tsar officially banned all of his generals from receiving any communications from the French HQ. Napoleon finally began to realise that the Tsar wasn't going to enter into negotiations.

Napoleon was now in a very dangerous position. The invasion of Russian had already been a costly disaster - of the 600,000 men who started the invasion only just over 200,000 were still with the colours. Two thirds of the army had already been lost even before the start of the famous retreat from Moscow.

Napoleon's troops were spread out along the edges of a narrow wedge of occupied territory ending at Moscow. Napoleon had 95,000 with him at Moscow and another 5,000 in VIII Corps near Borodino. Kutuzov now had around 110,000 men near Moscow.

Oudinot and St. Cyr had 17,000 men near Poltosk, guarding the northern flank of the army. They were faced by General Wittgenstein with around 40,000 men.

Marshal MacDonald had another 25,000 men on the far northern flank (including a number of Prussians of uncertain reliability). His tasks were to control the River Dvina as far as Dünaburg (an 80 mile long stretch) and besiege Riga, where the Russians had around 24,000 men under Generals Essen and Steinheil.

In the south Schwarzenberg and Reynier had 34,000 men to face Admiral Chichagov and General Tormassov's 65,000. On this flank the Russians failed to cooperate successfully and Schwarzenberg and Reynier would be able to escape from their dangerous position, although this would expose the southern flank of the retreating Grande Armée.

The French also had the 37,000 men of IX Corps (under Marshal Victor) around Smolensk, defending the long and vulnerable lines of communications against Cossack raids, 26,000 conscripts at Stettin and 10,000 men near Konigsberg. 

Napoleon had several options available to him in early October (Chandler gives six in his study of Napoleon's campaigns). He could have chosen to over-winter in Moscow. This was just about logistically possible - the French had captured plenty of supplies in the Russian capital - but it would have left the army even more isolated than at Smolensk. Napoleon had bad memories of the winter campaign of Eylau of 1806-7 and didn't want to risk a repeat.

The second option was to move south to Kiev. This would have placed the army in more fertile un-ravaged lands, where the French would have found supplies and suffered much less from the winter. They might also have found Ukrainian allies. However this would have been a move away from the centre of Russian power, would have been seen as a retreat, and would have required a major battle to force Kutuzov out of the way.

Third was to retreat to Smolensk, moving south-west from Moscow to reach fresh areas before turning west. This would also have risked a battle with Kutuzov, but would have avoided the band of devastated territory along the original line of advance.

Fourth was an attack on St. Petersburg. Realistically it was far too late in the year to start such a major campaign with a weakened army, but Kutuzov had moved to the south of Moscow, so the French could have got a head start on him. Even the capture of St. Petersburg might not have resulted in a Russian capitulation.

Fifth the French could have moved north-west to the Velikye-Luki area. They would still have been able to threaten St. Petersburg, and it would have shortened the lines of communications, but made it harder to supply the army.

The sixth option was to retreat back towards Smolensk along the original route, which was at least still in French hands. The French could then pull back to Poland if required. This had two big disadvantages - everyone would see it as a retreat (even more than the move on Kiev). The Prussians and Austrians would be even more likely to change sides (as indeed they did, although not until very close to the end of the retreat). Matthieu Dumas, chief commissary of the army, calculated that it would take 50 days to reach the Niemen, and with the area already laid waste supplies would have to be provided for much of the trip. There were supply depots along the way, but they would never quite live up to expectations - some were lost to the Russians, others contained less food than expected but by far the biggest problem was the collapse of discipline that meant that most of the supplies were looted and then consumed almost immediately.

On 17 October the second delegation returned from the Tsar with no message. Napoleon decided to adopt the third plan, moving south-west from Moscow to enter fresh territory before heading back towards Smolensk. This could be portrayed as a continuation of the attack on Russia rather than a retreat, bringing the war to untouched areas. On 18 October the corps commanders were ordered to be ready to leave Moscow on the 20th. At this point Kutuzov finally decided to attack the French cavalry screen outside Moscow. Marshal Murat was so used to the peaceful conditions outside the city that he was caught almost entirely by surprise. The resulting battle of Vinkovo or Tarutino (18 October 1812) ended as a narrow French victory after the Russians failed to take advantage of their initial successes, but it did convince Napoleon to begin the retreat one day earlier. On 19 October, after 35 days in the city, the French began to leave Moscow.

The Retreat from Moscow

The Southern Route

Napoleon left Moscow at the head of 95,000 men, with 500 cannons and an uncertain number of wagons (estimates range from 4,000 up to 40,000, with around 20,000 perhaps most likely). The wagon train included the Imperial HQ, the pontoon train, thousands of wagons filled with food and just as many filled with the loot of Moscow.

Napoleon made several attempts to hide his intentions. He sent a third set of envoys to the Tsar. He also told his own troops that he was intending to attack Kutuzov's left wing. He hoped that this news would leak to the Russians who would slip east to avoid a battle. Marshal Mortier was left in Moscow with orders to wait until 23 September, then blow up the Kremlin and advance west, forming a link between Napoleon on the southern road and Junot's corps at Borodino.

Napoleon headed down the old road to Kaluga. This was the western of the two roads, and the Russians were already on the eastern 'new' road. News of the French retreat didn’t reach Kutuzov until 22 September, and he responded by ordered General Dokhturov's corps to move from Tarutino to Malojaroslavetz, a town on the old road. This was a key road junction - if Napoleon could occupy the town then he had a choice of two routes - south to Kaluga or west to Medyn. On the evening of 23 September General Delzons, at the head of Prince Eugene's IV Corps, reached Malojaroslavetz. He took the town but was unable to hold onto it was and was forced to retreat to the Lusha River. On 24 September Prince Eugene launched a series of attacks across the river (battle of Malojaorslavetz). Eventually the Russians retreated to the ridges south of the town, but the French decided not to risk crossing the river in force.

On 25 November Napoleon scouted south of the river in person, and was very nearly captured by Cossacks. After that he held a council of war at which he decided to abandon the Kaluga route. Instead the army was ordered to turn back and move north to Mojaisk, on the road from Borodino to Moscow.

This was one of the worst decisions of the campaign. After the battle of Malojaroslavetz Kutuzov had decided to pull back if the French attempted to advance, so the road to Kaluga was actually open. By turning back Napoleon wasted the week that the army had spent moving south and the time required to move back north.

Looking further ahead the lost week forced the French to fight a major battle to cross the Berezina - the Russian southern army under Admiral Chichagov only just reached the river ahead of Napoleon, so without that delay the army would simply have been able to cross the intact Berezina bridge at Borisov, avoiding around 20,000 casualties and making it possible for at least the core of the army to escape from Russian intact.

The Retreat from Moscow and Destruction of the Grand Armée

Huge numbers of men have already been lost by this point, but it is the retreat that is remembered - this is where the discipline of large parts of the army collapsed, food ran out, and eventually winter hit and snow and intense frosts killed many more. The first nasty experience came soon after the army changed route, when it was forced to cross the battlefield of Borodino, still covered in unburied corpses and the wreckage of military equipment.

The army now became dangerously stretched out. On 31 October Napoleon reached Viasma, where he rested on 1 November while he caught up with dispatches from his other armies. Napoleon moved off on 2 November, and on the following day reached Slavkovo. The rest of the army was stretched out between there and Fiedovoisky (five miles east of Viasma). On 3 November the Russians made one of their rare large scale attacks on the retreating French columns (battle of Fiedovoisky or Viazma, 3 November 1812). Davout's rearguard came under most pressure and had to be rescued by Prince Eugene, and then by Ney. Davout's corps had been once of the best in the army, but after this battle it collapsed into a virtual rabble. The same was happening across the army, with the number of combatants falling every day and the number of stragglers rising all the time.

Napoleon also had worries on both flanks. In the north Wittgenstein was pressuring St. Cyr and Victor (II and IV Corps), and on 7 November he captured Vitebsk, defeating Victor. In the south Admiral Chichagov was pressuring Schwarzenberg and Reynier. The fall of Vitebesk removed one of Napoleon's possible routes of retreat and forced him towards Smolensk and then Orsha. After that he hoped to reach the supply depot at Minsk.

On 9 November Napoleon reached the first of his major supply depots, at Smolensk. He had hoped to find enough food there to solve his supply problems, but instead he discovered that the stocks had been reduced by the rear echelon troops who were retreating ahead of the army. Worse was to come when discipline broke down and the army looted the city. Two weeks worth of food was used up in three days. On the same day Napoleon also suffered the loss of Baraguey d'Hillier's division of fresh troops. On the morning of 9 September they ran into a Russian ambush and after the lead brigade was destroyed the rest of the division was forced to surrender.

By 13 November the army had concentrated around Smolensk. By now the army was already down to 41,500 effectives, so had lost more than half of its strength since leaving Moscow. The Guard was the strongest unit, with 14,000 men. Davout had 10,000, Eugene 5,000, V Corps and VIII Corps between them only 1,500 while Ney's rearguard had been reduced from 11,000 to 3,000. The army was accompanied by tens of thousands of stragglers. Elsewhere Victor won a tactical victory over Wittgenstein at Smolyan near Polotsk, but Victor was still forced to pull back.

It took six days for the army to leave Smolensk - the advance guard set off on 12 November and Ney's rearguard (reinforced to 6,000 men) left on 17 November. This long delay was caused by Napoleon's decision to have each corps leave on a separate day in an attempt to restore some order to the army. Instead it left the army vulnerable to attack.

The second major attack on the column came as the army passed Krasnyi (second battle of Krasnyi, 15-18 November 1812). Once again the Russians were able to get into the gaps in the column, and came close to cutting off Eugene's VI Corps. Napoleon was finally forced to commit the Guard to clear his way, and by the end of the battle it looked as if Ney's rearguard had been lost. Napoleon was forced to make a dash for the Dnieper in order to prevent a Russian army under General Tormassov from capturing the river crossings.

Worse news came on 18 November. Schwarzenberg had been forced to move south-west to rescue Reynier's VII Corps, and this had created a gap that Chichagov used to capture Minsk. This had two effects - first, the French lost two million rations that were stored in the city, and second it meant that there was a real chance that they would be trapped on the River Berezina, one of the last major natural barriers before the western borders of Russia.

Napoleon realised that speed was now vital, and he ordered half of the wagon train to be destroyed. The bridging train was destroyed, possibly by mistake or possibly because its heavy wagons used hundreds of horses and at this stage Napoleon believed that the crucial bridge at Borisov on the Berezina was safe.

On 20 November the army began to leave Orsha. On the same day General Dombrowski was ordered to hold the Borisov bridgehead at all cost, Oudinot was ordered to rush to the town to reinforce Dombrowksi or retake the town if needed. Victor was to form a defensive line north of the town.

On 21 November the army had some good news. Ney had not after all been lost - instead he had cut off and after a series of extraordinary adventures, in which he lost all but 900 of the 6,000 men he had commanded on 17 November. The survivors had crossed the frozen Dnieper, and finally managed to reach Napoleon. On the same day there was bad news from the west - Chichagov's troops had attacked Dombrowski and had captured the bridgehead and town of Borisov. The French were now trapped east of the river.

The battle of the Berezina (21-29 November 1812) is widely considered to have been Napoleon's most impressive achievement during the 1812 campaign. He recovered the energy that had been missing earlier, and for a few crucial days was back on form. On 22 November he ordered half of the remaining wagons should be destroyed. A 'sacred band' of 500 officers who had managed to keep their horses was formed, while 1,800 dismounted cavalry of the guard were formed into two infantry battalions. Ségur also claimed that Napoleon had the eagles burnt to make sure that they couldn't fall into Russian hands, but this story was later attacked by other writers.

The fighting on the Berezina was the culmination of the 'St. Petersburg Plan'. This called for the complete destruction of the French army and the capture of Napoleon. The aim was for Wittgenstein and Chichagov to drive in the flanking armies while Kutuzov pressed the main French column from the rear. Kutuzov doesn't appear to have been keen on this plan, and may even have wanted a weakened Napoleon to escape from Russia (although it is more likely that he didn’t want to risk a battle when the Russian winter was doing such a good job of destroying the French army).

On 23 November Oudinot defeated Chichagov east of Borisov (on the plains of Loshnitsa). He then recaptured Borisov but was unable to prevent the Russians from destroying the crucial bridge. Normally the Berezina would have been frozen in late November, but a sudden thaw on 20 November meant that it was an unusually difficult barrier, cold, fast flowing, with large blocks of ice being swept along and wide muddy floodplains on either side of the river. Napoleon now had a stroke of luck. General Corbineau, who had been detached for service in the north, was returning to Oudinot's corps. He ended up on the west bank of the Berezina, where some Polish troops in his division found a ford opposite the village of Studienka, eight miles north of Borisov. This news reached Napoleon on 24 November. 

Napoleon put in place a deception plan in the hope that Chichagov would be tricked into moving his army south. The Admiral also received orders from Kutuzov that suggested Napoleon would be heading that way, and he moved the bulk of his men well to the south of Borisov. On the night of 25-26 November General Eblé's engineers began work on two pontoon bridges.

The first bridge was ready by 1pm on 26 November. Oudinot and Dombrowski were first to cross, and formed a flank guard to the south of the bridge. The second bridge was ready by 3pm and the artillery began to cross. The two bridges needed constant repairs - only forty of the engineers survived the campaign, and Eblé himself died a few weeks later.

For most of the battle Chichagov had to fight alone. Wittgenstein arrived in time to take part in the fighting on 28 November, but only the advance guard of Kutuzov's army reached the area. Napoleon was only really outnumbered on 28 November, but his escape was still an impressive achievement. The hardest day's fighting came on 28 November. On this day Wittgenstein attacked Victor east of the river while Chichagov attacked Oudinot to the west. Both of these battles were hard-fought, but in both cases the French were able to hold off their enemies. The last French troops were across the river by 1pm on 29 November. Thousands of stragglers then missed a chance to cross the river, and many were killed in a panic after the bridges were finally set on fire to deny then to the Russians.

The battle of the Berezina cost the French two-thirds of the troops that began the battle. Napoleon now had around 10,000 men under arms (by this stage all figures for the French army are estimates, so some sources give him more men at this stage).

After the Berezina the Russians continued to harass the retreating French, but there were not more major attacks. Kutuzov's own army was in a fairly poor state and he was content to let the weather and the Cossacks complete the destruction of the remnants of the Grand Armée.

By 3 December Imperial HQ was at Molodetchna, from where Napoleon dictated the 29th Bulletin of the Grande Armée. This announced the defeat of his army and blamed the weather (despite the worst frosts and snow having started after the Berezina).

Early on 5 November Napoleon reached Smorgoni. That evening he held a conference with his marshals - Murat, Eugene, Berthier, Lefebvre, Bessières, Ney and Davout all attended. At this meeting Napoleon announced that he was going to leave the remnants of the army and return to Paris. At 10pm Napoleon left with a small party and a small escort of Polish cavalry. He was nearly captured by partisans, but was at Warsaw by 10 November, Dresden on 14 November and Paris on 18 November. Napoleon's unexpected arrive in Paris did indeed secure his power and he was able to raise fresh armies to continue the war. Napoleon's decision to leave the army was probably correct, although his enemies did portray it as a cowardly betrayal of his army.

Napoleon had left Marshal Murat in charge of the army. He proved to be a poor choice. Around 20,000 men (mainly stragglers) were lost between Smorgoni and Vilna. This was the period of the most severe frosts, with the temperature dropping to -20c on 5 December and -26c on 9 December.

The army reached Vilna on 8 December where it finally found supplies, food and new weapons. A better leader than Murat might have been able to restore order at this point, but the chance was missed. The men rioted at the entrances to the city. Many were killed there, while others drank themselves to death inside the city. Murat had been ordered to spend at least eight days at Vilna, but he was panicked by Cossack raids and ordered the retreat to continue on the evening of 9 December. Amongst the casualties were 20,000 wounded who were left in the hospitals of Vilna.

On 10 December the army reached the frozen hill of Ponarskaia. This was mentioned in many of the memoirs of the campaign and was a frozen hill that most of the horses couldn't cope with. The few remaining guns, what was left of the transport, and the 10 million francs of the treasury were all abandoned. By now the army was down to 7,000 combatants and 13,000 stragglers.

On 11 December the army passed Kovno. The survivors finally limped across the Niemen in late December. Marshal Ney is said to have been the last to leave Russia, crossing the bridge of the Niemen on 14 December.

The Flanks

The main army wasn't the only one to suffer. In the north MacDonald received the order to retreat from Riga on 18 December. On 19 December he set out for Tilsit, harassed by the Russians as he went. On 25 December his Prussian column (General Yorck) was cut off. After five days of negotiations Yorck agreed the Convention of Tauroggen and his men became neutral. This was the first step towards Prussian changing sides. MacDonald managed to escape with his other column and joined up with parts of XI Corps at Konigsberg on 3 January 1813.

In the south Schwarzenberg and his Austro-French army had been pursuing General Sacken, but on 14 December they abandoned the pursuit and began to retreat. By 18 December they were back at Bialystock. The army then split, with Schwarzenberg heading back into Austria and Reynier taking his surviving men back into Saxony.

The Aftermath

On 16 January 1813 the Russian advance resumed. They advanced toward Marienwerder and cut the French cantonments on the Vistula in half. Murat ordered a continued retreat towards Posen, but then handed command over Prince Eugène and abandoned the army to return to Naples. Eugène continued to retreat until he reached the Elbe on 6 March. This marks the end of the Russian campaign. When the fighting resumed later in 1813 it would be as part of the War of Liberation in Germany.

Napoleon's crushing defeat in Russia shattered the aura of invincibility that had surrounded the Emperor. It encouraged the Prussians to rise against him, and triggered the War of German Liberation. Austrian stayed out of the war for some time, but joined in later in the year. Napoleon was now suffering on all fronts - Wellington was winning in Spain, the German campaign was eventually lost, and morale in France began to plummet as the scale of the losses in Russia sank in.

The exact scale of the defeat will probably never be known. Napoleon started the invasion with around 650,000 men. Only 93,000 of them survived to the start of 1813. Most of the losses came in the central army under Napoleon's direct command. This began the war 450,000 strong and ended it with no more than 25,000 men (most of them stragglers). These losses included 370,000 men dead in battle, of illness or of expose and 200,000 captured by the Russians. Many of these prisoners also died (some of wounds), while others are said to have settled in Russia. About half of the prisoners may have survived to be released in 1814.

Napoleon was able to restore the numbers in his armies for the campaigns of 1813 but he was never able to rebuild the quality, especially of his officer corps, which had suffered exceptionally heavy losses in Russia. The French had also lost some 200,000 horses, and Napoleon's cavalry would be one of his biggest weaknesses for the rest of the war. The invasion of Russia in 1812 was one of the biggest disasters in military history, and was a key factor in the eventual fall of Napoleon.

Napoleonic Home Page | Books on the Napoleonic Wars | Subject Index: Napoleonic Wars

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (2 June 2014), Napoleon's Russian Campaign of 1812 ,

Delicious Save this on Delicious

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us -  Subscribe in a reader - Join our Google Group - Cookies